Swans Commentary » swans.com June 14, 2010  



Man Of Letters, Woman Of The Latter


by Christine Spadaccini



Pic: "Much (tag)ado about nothing" - © 2010 Christine Spadaccini - Size: 9k

Much (tag)ado about nothing
Clermont-Ferrand, France
© 2010 Christine Spadaccini



(Swans - June 14, 2010)  

Take a Monday morning
Make it early and shiny wet from a nightly downpour
Put some little bards on the wires, singers in high air
Now go the baker's
Buy four croissants au beurre
And hear the kneader
Offering you out of the blue
Some additional dough

- I need help here, at the till. Good looking girl, good at sums. From 6 to 8:30 am and 3 to 4:30 pm, weekdays only, Saturdays and Sundays free, 1,000 Euros a month. I'm a good boss. You okay?
- Well, thanks but I'm working already...
- And you like it where you work? The pay's good? 'Cause you'd fit perfectly here!
- Well, thanks again but I don't...
- This is a perfect job for a woman like you!

Take a deep breath
Make your fangs show somewhat
Behind the sweetest of smiles
Ready to ask him
What exactly a woman like you is
And hear with surprise
The tingling answer negligently thrown
By a coming customer

- Hey Jo, howdy! (Mister Blunt nodding now in your direction) Finally found the right one?
- (Jo the baker) Well, I've just...
- Good! (Addressing you now, with something of a horse trader's appraising look on his face) We'll see us then, miss, but next time dress like a woman!
- (You, beginning to bake) Pardon, sir, I don't think you have your say on the matter.
- (Customer to the baker) Well, you'll have to teach her to be nicer with customers! (Customer to you, clearly baking now) Women ought to wear skirts, I say!

(Not really useful to report the end of the dialog in which I thanked the baker for his offer but turned it down and exchanged a few more tense words with the other customer)

Take the evening before
Make your dog suddenly start a furious barking
Enraged at some invisible threat, shush him
Then next day again, come back from the baker's
Enraged at the scene just played over morning bread
And discover why your sweet beast went berserk
Last evening: your garage doors have been prey
To an uninspired aerosol spray

- (A bit later, standing in front of the badly daubed doors with a sponge in hand and acid thoughts on your mind, muttering...) At least if the guy had had any talent...
- (Your mutter obviously not muttered enough prompting a sneering remark from a guy standing on the sidewalk, near the school entrance) You gonna delete the message? Like this?
- (Thinking MYOB but answering) Like what? And what message? Do you know what it means? You wrote it yourself maybe?
- No, no, but this stuff surely means something. It's like letters, the artist tried to express...
- I'm also trying to express myself, you know, but I make my graffiti understandable and on paper, not on other's... (at that precise moment, your gaze goes from the man of letters to the woman of the latter)

Take a look at them
Make out the shiny white sports outfit
He's wearing from head to toe
Standing against her veiled all-blackness, like a negative in tow
See the unlikely union of Nike and niqab
And suddenly feel the urge to draw
Something right here, on her: a huge window
Where there's only this crack to look through

Nowadays in France there is a heated public debate going on this highly polemic question: should the wearing of the niqab be forbidden in public areas and this interdiction be enforced by a law? Notions like freedom of expression and worship are colliding with women's rights. Pros and cons stand their respective grounds, frozen in their beliefs and certitudes. Several incidents involving veiled women have already occurred. Few of these women are ever heard, but the rare ones who talk and testify to the media -- mostly young, born French or at least raised in France and possessing the French citizenship, educated in state secular schools, some with no roots at all in the Muslim world -- they all scan the same lines of personal choice and enlightenment (excerpts taken from two articles: "Kenza Drider, femme en niqab devenue 'star' des medias, -- Kenza Drider, woman in niqab, become star of the media," an article of Le Figaro, May 5, 2010; and a statement of an anonymous French student in the online news magazine Rue 89, "Si je porte le voile, c'est parce que je l'ai choisi -- Wearing a veil is my choice," May 20, 2010.)

- Wearing the niqab is a personal choice.
- This is just a garment.
- My husband has nothing to do with it.
- I do what I want with my own body.
- Nobody is forcing me.
- This niqab is something between my Lord and me.
- I feel good in it.
- I have the freedom of my body.
- I'm the one deciding for myself.
- No one tells me how to dress.
- Nobody is using me.
- I submit only to my God.
- No law is going to change my mind and my way of being.
- It is MY choice...

Well, by the way, it is also MY choice to not wear a skirt!
But the irony is that while the interdiction of wearing the niqab still has to be voted, making this clothing choice, I'm already an outlaw myself in regard to the existing French legal dress codes for women!
- The law of 26th November of the year 1799 (!) states that "every woman wishing to get dressed as a man has to go to the Police headquarters to obtain the authorization to do so (...) This authorization can be given only on the basis of a health certificate." This law certainly is not enforced anymore but has never been repealed and thus are we, women in France, legally forbidden to wear trousers!
-What's more, the labor code (article L. 120-2) allows the employer to impose the skirt if he clearly justifies his reasons. Saleswomen, stewardesses, and numerous professional women still have to conform to these rules of another time for the sake of their employers' brand image.
So if mister Croissants-au-beurre would have wanted me to wear a skirt, I guess he could legally have forced me to do so!
True that in the French context all this seems rather light and a tad funny. I have the freedom to answer. I can fight back, express myself and act the way I want. Really? Are you sure? For how long? softly asks Lubna al-Hussein in my ear, from her so close faraway Sudan...
I am not certain that a legal interdiction to wear the niqab is the answer and a good solution. But I won't deny the fact that I don't feel comfortable with a woman looking at me from the loophole of her niqab. I cannot help but think of all the women around the world who truly DO NOT have the choice and are forced to wear it. What strikes/bothers me, in the most basic and down-to-earth approach of this (t)issue, is the limitation of vision induced. And I'm not talking about religion or politics here, just in terms of conviviality -- a word I take in its downright Latin etymological sense: convivere, live together -- referring simply to social bond and humane touch:

- You were very cold when I arrived (...) There are women I meet who aren't Muslims and when I say hello to them they greet me in return with a very pleasant smile... (Kenza Drider, niqab wearer, to Sihem Habchi, her contradictor in a debate over the interdiction, reported in Le Figaro, May 5, 2010.)

I agree with you, Kenza, a warm greeting smile is worth a thousand words.
You want us to smile at you.
And I do smile at you.
It means I come in peace.
What about you?
Where's the smile telling me you come in peace too?
Ever thought that the veil on your face can make it as unreadable as the graffiti on my door?

Take another Monday morning
Make it as early and smelling of lilacs and roses
Put the same little bards on the wires, singers in high air
Now go the baker's
Buy four croissants au beurre
See the new girl greeting you at the till
She's welcoming, smiling,
Professional: deux euros quatre-vingts, s'il vous plaît, merci, au revoir, bonne journée...

Does it bother you?
That she wears jeans?
That a woman can be flogged and imprisoned for wearing trousers?
That lawMEN, religious or not, inspired or not, serving spiritual goals or more down-to-earth ones, keep on ruling the way women should dress -- or undress, by the way--?
In the end I am left wondering which one of these three words
Really is the most problematic in the equation...?

I had a dream last night.
The veiled woman from my street was taking
The baker's job
And her niqab off
Borrowing the sports outfit of the man of letters
To start with
Before finding the clothes of her own taste and comfort.
I was sitting on the bench in my garden
Half reading, half watching
Margaret Atwood's book, The Handmaid's Tale
The morning sun play through the flowers
And draw a fleeting graffiti of shadow on a petal
That surely meant something like
It's a Wonderful Life

Then came the bug in the picture...
You gonna delete the message? Like this?

Pic: "The bug in the picture" - © 2010 Christine Spadaccini - Size: 11k

The bug in the picture
Clermont-Ferrand, France
© 2010 Christine Spadaccini


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About the Author

Christine Spadaccini on Swans -- with bio.   (back)


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1.  CIELITO LINDO is a traditional song of Mexico, written by Quirino Mendoza y Cortés in 1882.  (ed. no back link because the author makes four references to the same note)

2.  MICHAEL JACKSON, LA CHUTE DE L'ANGE, written by Stéphane Koechlin with the collaboration of Christine Spadaccini and Hervé Crespi, éditions de l'Archipel, France, 2009.  (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art16/cspada06.html
Published June 14, 2010